During the great black-pudding controversies of the late seventeenth
and early eighteenth centuries, it was put about that Sir Isaac Newton
abstained from this dish because of the Old Testament prohibition
against eating blood. After his death, Newton's niece defended his
reputation, insisting that he had followed St. Paul's injunction not
to make a fuss about food prohibitions--don't be like the bloody
Jews--and to "take & eat what comes from the shambles without asking
questions for conscience sake." ...
In Newton's time and beyond, you couldn't discuss meat eating or its
rejection without biting into some tough theology, and Tristram
Stuart's sprawling "The Bloodless Revolution: A Cultural History of
Vegetarianism from 1600 to Modern Times" (Norton; $29.95) shows just
how hard it was to decipher God's dietary will and how many other
considerations--both sacred and secular--were wrapped up in decisions
about whether or not it was right to eat animals. ...
With few exceptions, European proponents of vegetarianism emerged from
those who had meat. You can define vegetarianism in any number of
ways, but the simple absence of meat from the diet isn't an
interesting way to do it. To be culturally significant, you need some
sort of principled justification, and there has been no shortage of
that. The arguments that Stuart assembles are part of an immensely
tangled and resonant debate. There's no demonstration of the wrongness
of eating flesh that hasn't been countered by equally powerful
arguments for its rightness, and different justifications have a way
of both supporting and interfering with one another. ...
Stuart is of the opinion that vegetarians have long had the best of
the intellectual arguments. If so, that just shows how little
intellectual arguments matter to populations' eating decisions. The
number of vegetarians in developed countries is evidently on the
increase, but the world's per-capita consumption of meat rises
relentlessly: in 1981, it was 62 pounds per year; in 2002, the figure
stood at 87.5 pounds. In carnivorous America, it increased from 238.1
to 275.1 pounds, and the practice is spreading in traditionally
herbivorous Asia. Indians' meat consumption has risen from 8.4 to 11.5
pounds since 1981; in China, it has increased from 33.1 to an
astonishing 115.5 pounds. This result has nothing to do with principle
and everything to do with prosperity. Stuart's "bloodless revolution"
has been much less a conversion than a conversation.